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Growing Strictures on Religious Women’s Comportment – and Their Silent Complicity

I love a good frum wedding. No one knows how to party, in the best possible way, like religious Jews at a wedding. Last Sunday, we went to the wedding of the daughter of a couple to whom we’re related by marriage and with whom we’ve become friends. It was a beautiful affair that took place in an elegant wedding hall in Boro Park.

The bride’s parents are both extremely religious and very worldly. They have earned my admiration for doing incredible chesed, collecting food and clothing from myriad sources and re-distributing it to more than 1,000 poor people each week throughout Brooklyn. There is barely room to walk through their basement because it is packed high with pallets of donated potatoes, sugar, canned goods and other foods. When food does not meet stringent kosher guidelines, for one reason or another, it is given to food pantries that feed non-Jews, mostly through local black churches.

The affair was beautiful. And make no mistake about it, this was a Boro Park wedding. There were streimels galore, and a parade of distinguished, elderly rebbes came by, with entourages of younger followers at their heels. I see a new take on the HBO show “Entourage.” Instead of a young Hollywood star and his cronies hanging out poolside at glamorous hotels and watching tushes, our new show would feature big-time rebbes and their followers hanging out at tisches.

In the wedding hall lobby were photocopied leaflets with the words “For Women” handwritten at the top, titled “Wouldn’t It Be Wonderful If:” with a 15-item checklist:

• My skirts cover at least 4 inches below my knee.
• I would sew up all the slits: at the sides, front and back of my dresses, robes and skirts.
• My snood/turban completely covers my hair at all times and my crocheted snoods would be fully lined in the proper way.
• I wouldn’t walk outside with a long robe on Shabbat, even at night.
• I would apply perfume in extreme moderation, so that a person walking by will not notice it.
• I would walk in a quiet, natural and pleasant manner which does not catch the eye or attract undue attention (Loud Footsteps).
• My straight skirts are not tight fitting. They should have at least 3 to 4 inches space wider than my thighs.
• My sleeves will always cover my elbows and cannot be mistakenly seen when casually raising my hands. (Wide Sleeves).
• I would cancel subscriptions to all a) Secular magazines (also refrain from looking at them in the Doctor’s office) b) Women’s wear catalogs.
• I wouldn’t speak on a cellular phone while walking on the street.
• I would remove one unrefined phrase or word from my vocabulary.
• The neckline of my clothing would be fully covered using the necklace guideline.
• I would be careful when I meet my friend/relative on the street, to move aside and converse in a quiet, modest manner.
• I would take care to purchase tops that don’t fall into the category of fitted-ribbed/fitted Lycra tops.
• It is obvious that my sheitel [wig] portrays the look of an Eshet Eish and my sheitel would be shortened a bit.

Just reading this list makes me feel like I’m being shoved in a box and all the air is being sucked out. The skirt length “suggestions” don’t surprise me, but I wonder: Why are the self-appointed defenders of modesty distributing this list so disturbed by women speaking on cell phones on the street and greeting their friends in public?

Do they really need to tell women how they may walk? These men are apparently disturbed by women’s very presence, very being, outside the male-permitted domains of kitchen, dining room, bedroom and supermarket – the places needed to provide for men’s needs.

The haredi women I count among my friends and family members are every bit as smart, lively and strong as the non-haredi women in my life. At least in private.

But women in this community have been so long trained to be silent in the face of male opinion that they do not object to these increasing demands on the way they comport themselves. They do not rise up and say “this is not halacha,” or Jewish law, or that “this is going too far.”

Instead, by their very silence, they are complicit.

At the chuppah Sunday night outside the wedding hall, when each of the wedding’s blessings were said, all of the many, many women present were silent. Not because they may not say “Amen,” but because they have been taught that their “Amen” is not necessary and they have been so acculturated to be silent.

I worry about this silence, and the price that my haredi sisters will ultimately pay for it. I hope that one day soon, some great woman, or women, from within the community will stand up and tell these men that they should be focusing their attention on their own behavior and middot, or ethics.

To that I would say a VERY loud “Amen.”

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